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Karim Benzema: How striker stepped out of Cristiano Ronaldo & Gareth Bale’s shadows

It was the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who once remarked that “all overnight success takes about 10 years”. Real Madrid’s number nine, Karim Benzema, would almost certainly concur.

Now in his 12th season with Los Blancos, the footballing world is finally waking up to what Real Madrid have known all along, that the 33-year-old Frenchman is one of the world’s great players.

When Real Madrid face Liverpool in the Champions League on Tuesday he has the chance to take centre stage. It is the first meeting between the teams since the 2018 final, when Benzema was more than prepared to play a supporting (but crucial) role to help the likes of Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Not any more. Since the departure of Ronaldo to Juventus and Bale’s loan to Tottenham Hotspur, Benzema has finally become his side’s main man, its focal point.

He is no longer Real Madrid’s best-kept secret.

Just how good is Benzema?

Karim Benzema
Karim Benzema has scored 18 goals in 25 league games so far this season

Only four players have scored more goals at Real Madrid than Benzema’s tally of 273 – Ronaldo (450), Raul (323), Alfredo Di Stefano (308) and Santillana (290). And there is every indication that if he carries on at the present rate for another couple of seasons he will end up second only to Ronaldo.

There are only three players who have scored more goals in the history of the Champions League – Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Robert Lewandowski – and he has been in the starting line-up in four victorious Champions League finals.

This season he has scored 24 goals in all competitions, including 11 in the past 10 games.

But what has really stood out has been the importance of these goals, breaking the deadlock against Getafe, Valencia and Celta Vigo, earning a vital point against league leaders Atletico Madrid and scoring twice to secure a late comeback win against Elche.

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Troubled beginnings

Bron, 10km east of Lyon city centre, is a rundown, deprived area containing masses of inadequate 1960s-built social housing with a largely immigrant population, many of whom fled the violence during Algeria’s war of independence. It does not feature prominently in the “must see” section of any of the guide books about France’s second city.

But for all its difficulties and the work and social prejudices suffered by its inhabitants, this was the home, school and playground of a young Benzema, one of nine children raised by French national parents of Algerian descent.

He swiftly developed a love for football and was spotted by Lyon after scoring twice in a match against their under-10 academy side while playing for his local team Bron Terraillon SC.

In such places are built the strong and priceless bonds that sustain you throughout your life and serve as a constant reminder of where you are from.

“My family inspires me,” he would say years later. “The values and morals my parents gave me helped me stay the same person. My faith [Benzema is Muslim] also helps me to be focused every day. It brings me benefits and it’s my strength for me, my family, as well as for my work – for literally everything.”

As a child his footballing inspiration was the Brazilian Ronaldo, a player whose Real tally he has gone on to surpass by 169 goals and counting. “It’s because of him that I fell in love with football. He has all the qualities that a player dreams to have, he inspired me to challenge myself.”

But the familiarity of the barrio was fraught with danger, which meant that at the age of 14 he opted to live at the Lyon academy so he could be sure to avoid the many temptations of the district that could only hinder his career.

Rising swiftly through the ranks he received his major break when then manager Paul le Guen called him up to the first-team squad, which at that time included Michael Essien, Sylvain Wiltord, Florent Malouda and Eric Abidal.

Frequently ridiculed by team-mates because of his shyness when forced to stand up and speak to them as part of the learning process, he told them: “Do not laugh, I’m here to take your place.”

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He made his debut aged 18, and four Ligue 1 titles and 66 goals in 148 games later, Real Madrid came calling.

Florentino Perez has only once made a specific trip abroad to persuade a player to join the club and that was for Benzema. Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were interested in signing him and were prepared to pay him and the club more in order to secure the deal.

Perez thought he spotted in Benzema what he had seen in Zinedine Zidane and visited the player and his family at their home, where he managed to convince him to make the move to Spain. It did help that Benzema did not fancy heading to Manchester and preferred a team that was considered not only successful, but also of legendary status among his family and friends.

Ronaldo pep talk and problems with Mourinho

Jose Mourinho and Karim Benzema
Benzema’s relationship with Jose Mourinho was never close – and it took time for the pair to trust each other

Two months after arriving at the Bernabeu, Benzema was approached by the also recently-arrived Cristiano Ronaldo. “Listen Karim, this isn’t France, it’s Real Madrid and if you want to play here then you have to work harder,” the Portuguese told him.

Benzema would always do what was asked of him, and Ronaldo – an obsessive trainer – left him in no doubt he had to do more.

At that point, Benzema was homesick and unhappy, hated the food that he found too greasy and was struggling to hold down a starting place ahead of Gonzalo Higuain. He got his chance when the Argentine was injured but was deeply hurt when manager Jose Mourinho announced publicly that “without Higuain we have a problem”.

And then to add insult to injury, he went on: “If you don’t have a dog to go hunting with but you have a cat, then you’ve got to take the cat with you, because you can’t go by yourself.”

Benzema answered in the best way he possibly could and by the end of that season had scored 25 goals in 1,800 minutes played, a return of a goal every 72 minutes. He scored 13 goals in his last 15 games, six in the Champions League and five in the Spanish Cup that Madrid would end up lifting.

But Mourinho remained unconvinced and he would not start in either the 2011 Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona or in either legs of the Champions League semi-final against their bitter rivals that same season.

Soon after he would confront Mourinho in a team hotel, going to his room and asking why he wasn’t playing as much as he felt he should. It turned out to be the best thing he could have done. Up to that point Mourinho had felt he lacked the drive and the guts to fight.

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The Portuguese manager realised for the first time that the quiet, trouble-free, low-maintenance player he had available to him was up for the battle. From that moment on he earned Mourinho’s respect and his place in the starting line-up for all the major games.

Relationship with Ancelotti and Zidane

Benzema would eventually learn to respect what Mourinho did for Real Madrid but – not unnaturally perhaps – never particularly warmed to him personally. The same cannot be said about two of the managers who followed him, his immediate replacement Carlo Ancelotti and then Zinedine Zidane, who succeeded Rafael Benitez.

Ancelotti was the first coach to rely heavily on Benzema. “How lucky am I to have Karim?” he once said. “Without him, nothing would work.”

Most notably, of course, that meant the BBC (Bale, Benzema, Cristiano), the partnership that won the Champions League and Copa del Rey in the 2013-14 season and the Uefa Super Cup and Fifa Club World Cup in 2014. Privately, Ancelotti has always said the piece that kept that unit functioning was the Frenchman, whose understanding of the game and generosity made his team-mates better.

Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema pose with the 2018 Champions League trophy
In 2018 the BBC – Bale, Benzema and Cristiano – won their fourth Champions League together

The player is unreserved in his praise for current boss Zidane, who has always supported him, especially throughout the troubles he has experienced off the pitch recently.

Zidane came from the same background, the same side of the tracks as Benzema. When, in a recent interview, Benzema claimed with a wry smile that Zidane and he “spoke the same language”, he was clearly saying much more than that they both conversed in French.

“For me, he is like an older brother,” he said. “Off the pitch he is always there to give me advice.”

Zidane is equally fulsome in his appreciation of the Frenchman. “Benzema is always there when you need him most,” he said. “For me, he is the best forward in the history of French football.”

Their relationship goes back many years and it was on Zidane’s recommendation that Perez worked so hard to complete his signing in 2009. If Zidane is Benzema’s greatest fan, then Real Madrid’s president is not far behind him.

While those in his own country have abandoned him in the face of allegations he was involved in attempted blackmail, Real Madrid and, in particular Zidane and Perez, have unhesitatingly backed Benzema all the way.

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Zidane’s unconditional respect and support for Benzema has, however, led to repercussions for his ongoing relationship with some of Real Madrid’s other stars like Vinicius Jnr and, in particular, Bale. The coach’s effusive praise for Benzema was in stark contrast to the cold indifference shown to the Welshman.

www.bbc.co.uk

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